Former leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) John Tembo and Monsignor Boniface Tamani joined the federalism debate this past week and spoke more or less from the same script.
Monsignor Tamani was quoted saying instead of working together to solve Malawi’s many development challenges, federalism proponents had “selfish reasons” for proposing that the country abandons the unitary system of government.
“If we want to change the system, it will mean distributing resources to small provinces or states…we have corruption in our midst,” said Tamani. “How sure are we that these meagre resources will be managed well?”
Monsignor Tamani is Catholic and his church is known for speaking with one voice on matters of national importance. While Counterjab could go off on a tangent and say his comments were a preemptive strike by the church on perhaps the most important issue since 1992 when it challenged the Banda regime over its excesses, one can also assume that the senior cleric was expressing his personal views.
If the church was testing waters – new way of doing things; hey Pope Francis rocks! — it would mean a major shift by the most influential church in Malawi when it comes to playing its prophetic role in lives of God’s children.
For his part, Tembo repeated a tired line used by opponents of federalism, saying Malawi was too small for the system. In his view, Malawians from the North who have been vocal about Malawi changing the system of government really have no case.
“The largest forest is there, the Chinese also built a hospital in the same region, and recently, government constructed the Chitipa, Karonga road,” said Tembo in an interview with a local radio. “Our first president always wanted to be one Malawi, one Nation. We need to pursue that.”
Tembo says there was a time when people from the MCP stronghold of Central Region felt sidelined when it came to selection to secondary schools and universities but they never made any noise.
Tembo could be trying to rewrite history for his own legacy or for his beloved MCP. However, it is also possible that the octogenarian gets a bout of amnesia in regards to his recollection of what really happened. But since nobody, including the radio that interviewed him had the guts to jog his memory, Counterjab takes the esteemed honour to help him with that.
Now, if indeed it is true that people from his region felt that they were being left out, at least they had someone looking out for them. As a matter of fact, they had more than one powerful individual on their side. One of them was Tembo who at one time was chairperson of about a dozen private and public organizations and the other was Malawi’s founding president Dr. Kamuzu Banda. How could these two just sit on their hands and not help their own kind? Something had to be done.
But Tembo, in talking about those who felt were left out in the cold but suffered in silence, does not say that the Banda administration’s response was the introduction of the quota system. That move by the government prompted some parents with northern region sounding names to change the names of their children to improve their chances of selection to secondary schools.
When it came to entering the state-funded University of Malawi (Unima), the government decided to reduce the dominance of students from the north by guaranteeing each of the country’s 24 districts 10 places regardless of grades.
Tembo, who for years had done what he thought was necessary to hit the sweet spot and was ready to succeed Kamuzu, can talk about unity all he wants but the truth of the matter is that Banda’s dictatorial regime always governed by the policy of divide and conquer.
Back in the early 90s when the administration sensed that it was losing its grip on power, Tembo and Banda supporters struck back. Chakufwa Chihana, who came out and strongly supported the Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter that criticized the political system, was an easy target for the State which jailed him.
Prominent northerners took turns to try and take down religious leaders from the region whom they accused of undermining the government. Banda’s supporters also said campus demonstrations at Unima’s biggest constituent Chancellor College in support of the bishops who had been put under house arrest were masterminded by students from the northern region.
The message Tembo and others were sending to people from the central and southern regions was that northerners had plotted to seize control of the country and that their ultimate goal was to develop the north to the detriment of the two regions. Sadly, this despicable mentality still prevails among some people today.
What the MCP was saying fit in with what the party had done a few years earlier. Teachers from northern Malawi were ordered to leave the central and southern regions ostensibly because their quality of teaching was inferior. The geniuses at the MCP central command had suddenly discovered that northerners had conspired to do this to give an advantage to their people! Yes, in order to win, oppressive regimes must brainwash their people to get them to swallow what is being shoved down their throats.
It should be pointed out that Tembo’s position on federalism runs counter to that of MCP president and Leader of Opposition Dr. Lazarus Chakwera who wants the idea debated. For the record, Chakwera is not from the North. He is from Tembo’s region.
Opposition United Democratic Front leader in parliament Lucius Banda says Malawi needed federalism “by yesterday.”
“With the federal system of government, the central government will still benefit and be on top,” Banda was quoted by the online publication Afriem. He points out that regions which felt neglected stood to benefit under federalism.
“It’s about power and competition on leadership and innovation,” said Banda, a successful singer whose music comments on social ills. And do not let his name fool you; Banda is not from the north, he is from the southern region.
In dissing federalism, Counterjab believes opponents either do not understand it or that they simply are afraid of competition. And a new wrinkle has appeared in the no-federalism camp. President Peter Mutharika, whose anti-federalism pronouncements must have emboldened some of his supporters, was for federalism before he was against it.
The Nation of October 31st, 2014 reported that Mutharika, while still teaching law in the United States, proposed federalism for Malawi in 2006. Mutharika cited the very same reasons – regional marginalization — put forth by proponents today which paradoxically are no longer relevant to him today yet his administration looks, feels and smells like it.
To fellow federalism supporters, our opponent is bleeding. But do not think this is over because this is a 12-round fight. He still has a lot left in the tank thus this fight will be over only after he gets dropped.
- The author is former founding editor of Maravi Post who is now a Counterjab columnist on Nyasa Times.